Monday, April 6, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

You know me; I love to stretch definitions to the breaking point. In this case, though, I won't even attempt to argue that L. Frank Baum's 1900 tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a pulp fantasy book, because even I'm not addled enough to make that claim. That said, I do think this children's novel is an important one for our hobby, for reasons I'll now elucidate.

I often say that one of the reasons Dungeons & Dragons has been misunderstood by many gamers (and designers) is because they misunderstand its cultural roots. In the late 60s and early 70s, fantasy and science fiction weren't as diverse as they are today. Fans of those genres -- which were generally considered the same genre rather than distinct ones -- all read the same books and authors, creating the common literary culture out of which D&D arose. That's not to say that there wasn't a lot of variation from fan to fan and from place to place, but the underlying foundations for those fandoms showed a high degree of commonality. Thus, allusions to certain characters, situations, and authors were all broadly
understood rather than being opaque or outright impenetrable. The death of that common culture has, in my opinion, led to the distancing of D&D from its roots to the point of unrecognizability.

The story of Baum's novel is another example of a common culture. I suspect most people in the English-speaking world -- certainly in the United States at any rate -- know the story and characters of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When I was a child, in the benighted days before VCRs and cable television, watching the 1939 Victor Fleming movie was an annual ritual, broadcast each year as a network TV special. People could and still do reference this story with the expectation that just about everyone knows what they mean when they do so. That's what many fantasy and SF stories were like at the dawn of this hobby and it was that kind of ready familiarity that allowed the ideas contained in those three little brown books to catch fire and spread so easily.

There's a catch, of course. When I say that everyone "knows" the story and characters of Baum's novel, that's not entirely truthful. The reality is that the 1939 film changes many elements of the original, just as earlier dramatic productions of the story did, often with Baum's blessing, who regularly wrought his own changes through sequels to the initial book. In Oz fandom -- yes, such a thing does exist -- there are discussions and debates every bit as vociferous as those in this hobby regarding the merits of such changes, not to mention continuations and re-interpretations by later authors. The Oz books are all in the public domain and have been for some time, allowing the original ideas to be picked up and developed further by any author who wishes to do so, leading to a wide variety of non-Baum Oz tales, some of which stray very far from the original intent -- not unlike D&D itself.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, if nothing else, a powerful example of fantasy world building. The Land of Oz and its inhabitants have no doubt exercised a powerful influence over the imaginations of many a participant in this hobby, including some of its earliest writers. Oz is a "pure" fantasy world -- a dreamland (though not literally so in the novels, where it's clearly a real place) that obeys its own laws and confounds expectations. It's thus about as far from a naturalistic world as you can get and yet it's drawn so colorfully that one forgets its inherent unreality and simply accepts it for what it is. This approach to fantasy was much more common in the hobby's early days, as anyone who reads the 'zines of the period will know. That's probably why you can find lots of references to Oz-inspired adventures, items, and monsters in their pages. A full treatment of the Land of Oz as a D&D campaign setting was, in fact, promised in the pages of Dragon for many years but never saw print so far as I am aware.

I don't think there's any hiding the fact that I miss the days when the hobby had a stronger common culture -- when one could allude to "The Tower of the Elephant" or "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and not be met with blank stares, when we could cite Manly Wade Wellman or Henry Kuttner and people would not only know to whom you referred but had actually read their fiction. To the extent that such a common culture exists anymore, it comes from the ouroboros of D&D itself, a substitute for the books and authors that once formed the Common Tongue by which gamers conversed. I'm not sure such days can ever return -- the hobby is simply too diverse now -- but I long for it just the same.

33 comments:

  1. Just caught something while reading this, and I am compelled to comment on it before continuing:

    The death of that common culture has, in my opinion, led to the distancing of D&D from its roots to the point of unrecognizability.

    Yes, but the fact is that the "common culture" as it was was unsustainable; there would have come a point when sf/f would have breached open to a wider audience and any vestige of a "common culture" would have been wiped out by the entry of new works and the diversification of genre.

    Which is a good thing, I feel.

    Now, back to reading the rest of the article. I suspect you would have addressed this at some point later on. But still, the compulsion to reply got a bit too strong.

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  2. The Disney movies (particularly Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty) are the same way, also the Harryhausen movies (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts) the classic Universal monster movies of the 30s (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy), and of course King Kong. Including references to any and all of those in D&D was on the assumption that 99% of the audience would understand them.

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  3. I think what you are highlighting is that the world has changed since the early 70s. The cultural-meme-in-common nows includes things like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Ghostbusters (I mention this because it was on UK television last night and it struck me as one of those films that has embedded itself in such a niche that it's difficult to remember a time before the memes of Ghostbusters were common currency), Terminator, Transformers and that's just the first couple of sci-fi/fantasy things that come to mind this morning.

    Roll the clock on another 30/40 years and we can all grumble about some of these "common currency" items having faded from memory.

    You're right about the "ouroborus" thing though - D&D now seems to just do D&D fantasy! But for some of us growing up in Britain in the early 80s, this was already second-hand. We played Fighting Fantasy books and painted Citadel Miniatures and then we saw that D&D was similar so for many people my age (35) in Britain these were amongst our source material - that they were the descendant not the ancestor didn't really occur until later.

    word verification - Urmst. Very Gygaxian

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  4. I'm not sure such days can ever return -- the hobby is simply too diverse now -- but I long for it just the same.

    Personally I'm glad that there is diversity amongst gamers and that common culture has evolved. In order for a culture to be shared amongst a group of like minded people it must be relative. The generations since the inception of the original D&D has developed their own common cultures and it's a pretty amazing thing.

    I agree that the classics must be acknowledged, learned from and understood. Classics are classics for a reason but the works that the classics influence I feel have potential to someday become even greater than the works it was derived from.

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  5. What credence do you give to the supposed political undertones to Oz?

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  6. "I won't even attempt to argue that L. Frank Baum's 1900 tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a pulp fantasy book..."

    So, no love for REH's "Oz" fanfics ("Yellow Brick Road of Death", "Kull, Warrior-King of Oz" or "City of the Winged Monkeys") then? Shame.

    @noisms: It scares me that the people who argue "Oz" is a political allegory seem entirely serious.

    wv: noster - ours, and treasured as such

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  7. What credence do you give to the supposed political undertones to Oz?

    None whatsoever.

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  8. I'll politely disagree. I think there's too much coincidence with some of the fantastic elements mirroring common political satirical imagery of the time.

    But back to your point, I think that D&D has become the ouroboros but with one stop in the loop: World of Warcraft, the "common tongue" of young fantasy enthusiasts. That this isn't a book points to the fact that you'd be hard pressed to name a breakout contemporary fantasy author aside from Rowling right now--someone that everyone read just as everyone read Burroughs or Tolkein twenty years ago. I'm not saying that there isn't good fantasy fiction out there, but it is buried in the shelves and shelves of fantasy paperbacks, many published under a D&D banner.

    Instead, you have D&D aping WoW which in turn was built upon D&D.

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  9. Interestingly, EGG and RJK created an Oz demi-plane level accessible from Castle Greyhawk, in the same style as WG6 Isle of the Ape, EX1-2, etc.

    Allan.

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  10. James,

    What you've noticed is actually a culture-wide phenomenon. Education in the Western world used to be about great books (including the Bible!). If you hadn't read these books, you weren't educated. Then two things happened — technology and post-modern relativity. Technology made information easily accessible and easy to produce. Relativity took this plethora of information and stated that it was all of equal value. Thus, it didn't matter what you read, as long as you read it. This forced our common culture to shift to TV and movies as source material. Thus, today a D&D rule book or module has as much value as anything written by REH, and the inspiration for todays games are movies and TV.

    To attempt to go back to those days of the great books runs the risk of appearing to be elitist and exclusive, unless of course you write a blog every week declaring how cool all of these books are and how important they are to our common culture...

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  11. I'll second coopdevil's comments as another thirtysomething Brit, and add that Oz, at least in my own experience, didn't have anything like the reach in Britain that it had in the US.*
    Of course I take your larger point. I wonder if it's not just a feature of the market expansion of fantasy literature, though: diversity of creators and approaches should follow an increase in buying public, if the market's behaving the way Smith wanted it to. I also wonder what influence Baum's (and Barrie's) success had on Tolkien's decision to write and publish, and how much Tolkien's market penetration caused that radical expansion of the 80s: if Baum, Barrie, Tolkien might form another mass market stream of literature beside REH, CAS and HPL, with D&D standing at the confluence, in which case one could reasonably expect its common culture to dissolve in many directions.

    I'd also caution against blaming postmodernism for anything: actual pomo thinking remains a very minor concern, and relativism had currency long, long before the "postmodern moment" (since 1968?); TV was bound to become respectable one day, merely because of its ubiquity (cf. advertising, comics); great books have suffered partly at the hands of the publishing boom after WW2. I don't want anyone to think I agree with economic determinism - I don't - but I agree even less with crediting French theory with real potential to move the world.

    *Growing up I could name maybe 3 or 4 characters and I knew there was a yellow brick road. The greatest common currency was probably shared between Tolkien, Monty Python and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and I don't think the latter two should be entirely ignored as influences on the hobby in Britain, even if that influence didn't often come out directly).

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  12. richard:

    "I'd also caution against blaming postmodernism for anything: actual pomo thinking remains a very minor concern"

    Except that journalists and authors go to University, study English, are indoctrinated in PoMo, Frankfurt School Critique & Deconstructionism, then take that with them into the real world.

    They may not be able to quote Derrida but they do 'know' that 'everything's relative'.

    As an academic, I see how the stuff that starts here in the University eventually affects (infects) the wider culture in profound ways.

    On another point, I'm 36, from the UK, and like the others above I was introduced to fantasy at age 11primarily via The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the other early Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.

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  13. While I've done no significant reading on Oz as political metaphor, but it is interesting to note that the analysis of it as such seems not to begin until 1964! Are there earlier articles or books on the topic? Were the books reviewed as satire when first published?

    Anyhow, James, between you and Scott of World of Thool, I've requested the first three of these from the library -- haven't read them since small times.

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  14. Relativity took this plethora of information and stated that it was all of equal value. Thus, it didn't matter what you read, as long as you read it. This forced our common culture to shift to TV and movies as source material.

    That's sort of a ridiculous connection.

    Technology changes communication, it's as simple as that. When the printing press came on the scene, there were parties that decried reading for pleasure as a decadent luxury. Later radio, movies, TV, comic books, recorded music. Now TV is in decline because of online video (and other reasons).

    Blaming one of these particular shifts on "relativity" is not supportable. If anything, I'd hypothesize that any causal relation went in the opposite direction (postmodernism as a reaction to the rise of 20th century visual media, TV/movies).

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  15. Hi S'mon

    I don't want to hijack James' comments thread with a discussion about relativism and postmodernism. I'd be happy to carry it on at my lj. James: I hope you don't see this as poaching or anything; I'm trying to figure out a good kind of etiquette. If you object, please just let me know.

    Short form: I don't deny that academia has some influence on society. If I did, I probably wouldn't be doing a PhD.

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  16. The erosion of the common culture is something that's interesting to me as I've watched it steadily over the years. I used to go to science fiction and fantasy conventions of all sorts and I've seen the growth, diffusion, and dillution of the common culture over time. I look at gaming as part of the greater fandom of science fiction and fantasy, which is hugely expansive to me. I include movies, tv, writing, comics, costuming, prop making, larping, etc... just about whatever resides outside of the mundane world of sports and work as a part of Greater Fandom.
    It used to be that I could start a conversation with anyone at a con, and have mostly common ground and referances. Not so any more. The focal point of the common culture grows until it becomes so diffuse that it must split off into subfandoms. Then each subfandom begins it's own cycle of expansion, diffusion, and fracturing. We can gain new perspectives by observing what drives the new forms of the common cultures of fandom, but there is a point where they become so removed from the original common culture that no connection can be made anymore. That's the point in time that I fear because if the younger fans no longer have any connection to the older, then the focal point of the common culture moves on and the old point of view dies out.
    Of course, everyone says, this is good, progress and all that, blah,blah. But the thing is, cultures die out totally when they ignore or denigrate the foundations of their existance. There was a time before science fiction, fantasy and gaming as we know it, and if we don't maintain the common culture deliberatley and purposefuly, there will be a time AFTER it as well.

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  17. you'd be hard pressed to name a breakout contemporary fantasy author aside from Rowling

    That's a pretty big set-aside! The most successful author period of the past decade is a fantasy writer -- when has that ever happened before? Sir Thomas Mallory? ;)

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  18. Speaking of OZ was looking for the scale of the OZ Map the other day. Turned out to be something like 250 miles by 200 miles. Close to the map size I use in a certain product series.

    Mmmmmmm

    Sandbox OZ anybody?

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  19. I hope you don't see this as poaching or anything; I'm trying to figure out a good kind of etiquette. If you object, please just let me know.

    No need to worry: I have no objections and certainly appreciate your willingness to take a side discussion to another venue. Carry on.

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  20. Sandbox OZ anybody?

    When does it go on sale? :)

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  21. The common culture is there, I assure you - it's just that WoW, Final Fantasy, Diablo, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and a fair dose of anime are now the foundation that "everyone" knows, at least among the younger set.

    Of course, most of the above works can themselves be traced directly back to D&D in some fashion...

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  22. Interestingly, EGG and RJK created an Oz demi-plane level accessible from Castle Greyhawk, in the same style as WG6 Isle of the Ape, EX1-2, etc.

    I am not the least bit surprised.

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  23. The common culture is there, I assure you - it's just that WoW, Final Fantasy, Diablo, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and a fair dose of anime are now the foundation that "everyone" knows, at least among the younger set.

    Exactly. At the risk of sounding like an asshole(though I'm not trying to offend anyone) I think that those who shared that common culture with you James has just gotten old and out of touch with today's common culture. That common culture that you had still exists but it's amongst your generation.

    This generational gap of common cultures could explain the 4e/previous editions wars. New rule sets aren't made to alienate the old crowd but to give the new crowd something relevant. If you don't dig it then sucks to be you. If you live and let live you're better off.

    I don't think your culture is dying, it got in a relationship, had some kids, watched those kids grow up, go to school, have some kids, and now it's chillin with the old lady having a cup of copy reminscing about the good old days of the past.

    Passing on wisdom and knowledge is important but so is letting the current common cultures grow.

    By making games that are relative to the current common culture the hobby thrives. Respecting the past and learning from it is important and at the same time condemning things such as wow, ccgs, anime, etc...(and I know a lot of readers here are guilty, you know who you are) all those things are just as important as the roots of the hobby.

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  24. By making games that are relative to the current common culture the hobby thrives. Respecting the past and learning from it is important and at the same time condemning things such as wow, ccgs, anime, etc...(and I know a lot of readers here are guilty, you know who you are) all those things are just as important as the roots of the hobby.

    The thing is, the common culture wasn't mine when I joined the hobby. I'm younger than the earliest generation of gamers, the youngest of whom were teenagers when I was still in grade school. But I adopted that culture, because that's what it meant to be a gamer. Part of the "initiation" into it was being conversant in the ways of my elders.

    Certainly I had -- and have -- a generational culture of my own, which I existed alongside the older one I adopted. I don't see anything wrong with that and agree that it's vital to the growth of the hobby. The problem arises in my opinion when that original culture is forgotten, if not denigrated, which is what it feels like is happening now.

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  25. Of course, it's worth noting that we're now in a pulp fantasy publishing Renaissance, what with the ongoing attempt to republish everything REH wrote, the continued availability of Leiber's Nehwon stories, the various works Erik Mona is putting out through Lemuria Press, the New Sword and Sorcery (as exemplified by writers like Erikson and Abercrombie), the New Weird of Mieville, and so on. The late 1980s and 1990s were the big drought between the 1970s and early 1980s fantasy explosion (Lin Carter's series of reprints, the Ace Conans, etc.) and now.

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  26. But I adopted that culture, because that's what it meant to be a gamer.

    Trust me, I feel you on that one. It took me years to even find people to game with and most of what I learned was on the internet. With the release of 4e I've been finally able to find gamers interested in play dnd because the rules system is more familiar. I've played the older editions when I was younger but never DM'ed a successful game until the release of 4e.

    The problem arises in my opinion when that original culture is forgotten, if not denigrated, which is what it feels like is happening now.

    In my opinion this happens in all cultures. I read lines on this blog as well as many other "old school" blogs denigrating current common cultures all the time.


    Sometimes I just filter it but it often gets irritating.

    I also read it on 4e blogs saying things like 'random encounters/tables are for idiots' and such and in my opinion it's the same thing as listening to some dumb kid talk like he knows whats up.

    When the youth or a newb denigrates a culture it is usually out of sheer ignorance and inexperience. But when I hear vets to the hobby gripe about how things have change and how newer systems are not catering to them or how new rules are stupid and dumbed down for morons I just have to slap my forehead because of the irony.

    I'm just glad that I don't have to be forced to choose a single culture and can instead adopt any and all of the common cultures available.

    I don't think your adopted culture will ever die because it lives on in new forms.

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  27. Of course, it's worth noting that we're now in a pulp fantasy publishing Renaissance

    I don't know about it being a renaissance. It seems more like publishers are just re-releasing the works for the new generation.

    I haven't heard of any new pulp fantasy novels that could be considered classics. Although exposing the harry potter generation to pulp fantasy works could be a sign it's up to today's writers young and old to produce the new classics in order for a renaissance to really begin.

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  28. There's the releasing of pulp classics, but there is also the emergence of new writers in the pulp vein. Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy is certainly indebted to old-style sword & sorcery, and Steven Erikson's Karsa Orlong is a deliberate homage to/revision of Conan. Then there's China Mieville and the entire New Weird, much of which explicitly looks back to the Weird Tales writers of the 1930s and 1940s for inspiration.

    In the late 1980s and 1990s there was really nothing along these lines (with the exception of David Gemmell, whose work I am now belatedly discovering).

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  29. Ah cool, I have to check those out. Is there any one book you would recommend out of those?

    Also I was thinking about it afterwards and would Hellboy be considered pulp? Also there is a new cartoon I watched with my son the other day called the Secret Saturdays and the style seems very much influenced by the pulp genre.

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  30. @Kaeosdad: If you're interested in China Mieville I think his best book is The Scar, but Iron Council and Perdido Street Station are good too. If you like a heavy dose of politics and steam-age technology with your pulp fantasy, you'll love them.

    The doyon of the New Weird is M. John Harrison. He writes fiction that takes the old Weird Tales as inspiration but then goes off in very unusual and high-literary directions. Absolutely unique. He writes some pretty straight hard-SF too, which is different from his 'weird' fiction but worth reading too. (The Centauri Device is his best SF book; the Viriconium stories - beginning with The Pastel City and through Storm of Wings to In Viriconium are his best New Weird ones.)

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  31. "City of the Winged Monkeys"

    My upcoming sandbox campaign has exactly this, and they are ruled by an evil witch.

    FWIW, they live in fear of a winged APE creature who has the power to turn people into were-jaguars. He's the last survivor of an ancient race and he jealously guards cursed treasures. That is also borrowed from a classic, but it ain't Oz...

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  32. Also I was thinking about it afterwards and would Hellboy be considered pulp?

    Hellboy is certainly pulp but it's not "pulp fantasy" in the sense I normally use the term.

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